Friday, April 03, 2015

The Rock

Seven summers ago, right after my father died, my niece, Karis, and I were given a job by our family. We drove from Wichita, Kansas to Missouri to pick up Mom. She was staying in a nursing home in St. Louis and it was our task to move her to a new facility only blocks from the homes of my brothers Scott and Dave. As we drove through mid-Kansas, we saw a sign for Knute Rockne's memorial. Karis had no idea who he was. Fortunately, I wrote a blog about him on April 5, 2006. This is for Karis.

I ran across a fascinating article on ESPN's website. Last Friday marked the 75th anniversary of the death of Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne. With seven others, Rockne was killed when the Fokker F10A they were flying in slammed into a Kansas wheat field on March 31, 1931. One hundred fifty football and Notre Dame enthusiasts, along with relatives of those whose lives ended there, congregated outside Bazaar, Kansas, to mark the date. Rockne, the most famous football coach of his time and perhaps all time, WAS college football to many. His winning percentage of .881 is unmatched in NCAA history. Born in Norway, Rockne's family emigrated to America when he was five years old. As a player at Notre Dame, Rockne is often credited with popularizing the forward pass along with his roommate and Irish teammate, Gus Dorais. Taking over the coaching reins at the South Bend campus in 1918, he helped revolutionize football, from a brute strength sport to more of a finesse game. Rockne was immortalized in the movie Knute Rockne, All American with the title role being filled by Pat O'Brien. A postage stamp was issued in his honor in 1988 with President Reagan, who played Notre Dame legend George Gipp in the Rockne film, speaking at the unveiling.

I had some knowledge of Coach Rockne but I knew nothing about the memorial at the spot of his death. Erected in 1935 after a public fundraising campaign, a very simple obelisk of granite lists the names of all eight victims and the date of the fatal crash. The monument sits enclosed by a barbed wire and log fence, surrounded by 1,500 acres of wide open prairie. Pieces of the wreckage can still be found in the area. The location is so secluded that it is extremely difficult to find without assistance. That's where Easter Heathman comes in. Heathman, eighty-eight years old, is the de facto caretaker and tour leader of the Rockne memorial. He was there that day. A thirteen year old in 1931, Heathman and his father heard the crash and raced to the field to offer assistance to possible survivors. He saw Rockne and the others in the posture of death, thrown from the wreckage. And now, he is the curator of the memories, the final link to the tragic day. He has watched over the monument for decades when it was neglected, never seeking personal recognition. Heathman has given his life in service so that eight men he never met in their living years would not be forgotten. Last Friday, Notre Dame bestowed on Easter Heathman a framed Notre Dame logo, an award usually saved for the most illustrious dignitaries and alumni. What a deserving honor for such a deserving man. Single-handedly, he has preserved a slice of history that might easily have been discarded and overgrown by tall prairie grasses. One of the most trite phrases tossed casually around is how one can make a difference. Easter Heathman is living proof. I am one- so are you. And most importantly, so was Jesus. He's left us a pretty good memorial, too, hasn't he?

Applicable quote of the day:
"It takes a big calamity to shock the country all at once, but Knute, you did it. You died one of our national heroes. Notre Dame was your address but every gridiron in America was your home."
Will Rogers (on the death of Knute Rockne)

God bless,
Luke 18:1
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Jon said...

I have never heard of him... SORRY

JKC said...

Very touching story - thank you for writing it. I agree that this recognition was long overdue.

Laurie said...

According to Wikipedia, he passed away January 29, 2008. I hope someone will continue to care for the site.